Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Democratic Debate Recap: Still Obama's Party

A few days, ago, the New York Times published a debate preview with the headline "A Likely Debate Highlight: Democrats' Distance from Obama" which argued that last night's event would demonstrate that "it's not Barack Obama's party anymore." "Democrats have developed a complicated relationship with their standard-bearer," argued the Times. "And that is especially true for those running for their party's nomination." The article recited a list of issues on which, supposedly, Democratic presidential candidates had broken with the policies of the current administration.

The actual debate played out quite differently. When Hillary Clinton—by media consensus the hands-down winner—was asked directly near the end of the event how her hypothetical presidency would differ from an Obama third term, she responded by noting that she, unlike the incumbent president, was a woman. True, but not exactly the dramatic policy distancing we were promised by the Times.

Though Clinton has attempted to distinguish herself from Obama on trade while seeking the 2016 nomination (without really saying anything that would constitute committed opposition to the TPP deal) and Bernie Sanders is positioned distinctly to the left of Obama (and, for that matter, almost every other Democrat) on certain economic issues, the debate instead confirmed the enduring popularity of Obama's politics among Democrats. Much of the policy agenda supported by the candidates running to succeed Obama—paid family leave, additional gun control measures, immigration reform, early childhood education—represent unfulfilled Obama objectives rather than a new direction for the party; were Obama constitutionally eligible to seek a third term, such initiatives would no doubt constitute much of his platform as well.

While the press likes to sniff around for hints of internal dissension, the leadership of the contemporary Democratic Party is, by historical standards, remarkably unified. The Obama presidency has played a central role in fostering this unity in two respects. On the one hand, Obama has demonstrated that a Democrat can win two national presidential elections without adopting the "triangulation" strategy favored by Bill Clinton in the 1990s, who distanced himself substantively and symbolically from traditional liberalism. On the other, the moderate wing of the Democratic Party has been electorally decimated during the Obama years within its traditional geographic constituencies in the Old South and rural Midwest and West, pulling the national party collectively to the left by attrition (and simultaneously plunging it into what may be long-term minority status in both houses of Congress).

The attempt by Sanders to engineer a further leftward shift by winning the nomination in 2016 is not likely to succeed, leaving Hillary Clinton to run a campaign that has adopted Obama's policy approach (and will attempt to reassemble Obama's electoral coalition) much more than that of her husband 20 years ago. This is still Obama's Democratic Party, even if it nominates another Clinton for president.